Humans want autonomous robots that take control

MIT study shows people like when robots assign them tasks in the workplace

If a company wants humans and robots to work more seamlessly together, they need to give the robots more freedom to work on their own.

A study released today from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab shows that despite decades of fear-inducing movies and TV shows like Terminator and Battlestar Galactica , people do want robots to have a lot of autonomy - especially robots working side-by-side with humans.

Giving robots control over manufacturing tasks, for instance, that were once the sole domain of humans is not just more efficient -- it's actually preferred by the workers, according to MIT.

MIT researchers found that workers were happy with robots that assigned them tasks and acted autonomously in the work place. (Video: MIT)

"In our research, we were seeking to find that sweet spot for ensuring that the human workforce is both satisfied and productive," project lead Matthew Gombolay, a PhD student at MIT, said in a statement. "We discovered that the answer is to actually give machines more autonomy, if it helps people to work together more fluently with robot teammates."

The report is not based on a survey but is an actual study done on people working with robots.

According to MIT, groups of two humans and one robot worked together in one of three conditions: in one, the humans allocated all the tasks to the robot; in a second group, the robot was allowed to allocate tasks to one of the humans while the other human worked on his own, and in the third group, the robot allocated all the tasks.

Giving the robots full control doesn't mean the humans had robotic overlords. It means the machines delegated, scheduled, and coordinated the tasks using an algorithm.

The study found that the humans actually were happier if the robots were in control.

MIT reported that the fully-autonomous condition proved to be not only the most efficient, but also the method preferred by human workers, with the people saying, the robots "better understood them" and "improved the efficiency of the team."

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said he thinks the novelty of the autonomous robots being in charge would wear off and the workers would find themselves bored without the decision-making aspect of their jobs.

"I think reality would be different from the test," he said. "While, at first, we may want a robot to do everything for us, we would get naturally bored. What would we do? We'd be bored to death."

However, it might be different if the robots were taking care of the monotonous, strenuous work, freeing humans up for more interesting tasks, he noted.

Much also depends on how comfortable people will be working with robots. Because of sci-fi movies where robots toss off their human-made shackles and try to take over the world, people have developed a distrust of artificially intelligent machines.

"Long term, I see a societal seesaw between loving and hating robots," said Moorhead. "I think it will be a long time before we are comfortable working side-by-side with robots. It will take a proven track record of robots doing exactly what we've asked them to do, nothing more, nothing less."

That human-robotic work is already underway, though.

NASA engineers are working with semi-autonomous robotic rovers to explore Mars and the astronauts living and working on the International Space Station are working with not only robotic arms but a humanoid robot inside the orbiting station.

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